What do we experience when we are involved in a motor vehicle accident?

This week’s news was focused on the horrific Ottawa OC Transpo bus-train crash.

When viewing, listening or reading the survivors and witnesses’ reports we are left with one puzzling question; what is a person really experiencing when involved in a motor vehicle accident?

One of the common beliefs is that two people could be involved in the same accident and one person can leave the accident scene happily thinking something like “I am so lucky to be alive”, when the other will instead be totally distressed and overwhelmed by the accident.

How is that possible? In technical terms, what is experienced immediately at the accident is called the peritraumatic experience.

The individual difference reactions to a motor vehicle can be identified in the many different personality traits, characteristics the victim displays or past experiences he or she underwent that could affect the reaction itself.

Naturally, the most visible differences such as gender, age, physical built can affect the physical and the emotional reaction to a motor vehicle accident, although these are just some of the factors that can affect the emotional reaction to a motor vehicle accident.

How the person perceives the motor vehicle accident also is likely to affect the reaction to the accident itself. One of the most striking reactions I often encounter in my psychology practice working with victims of motor vehicle accident is that of disbelief. Especially if the victims are not “experienced” in car accidents, it is difficult “to believe” that an accident is actually happening. In other words, even if the victim is a professional (or a person who is on the road a lot)or a person who is working with victims of motor vehicle accidents it is likely to be “stunned” or “shocked” or in disbelief during the initial stage of the accident.

Some of the factors that may also affect the peritraumatic experience is the victim’ sense of confidence as driver, or how much trust the victim has in the driver (if the victim was a passenger in the crash). If the victim involved in the motor vehicle accident is blaming him or herself for the accident or if the victim is predisposed to emotional sensitivity (for example depression or anxiety) or suffering from a pre-existing physical or serious mental health ailment already.

Finally, another common belief is that the seriousness of the accident is an important variable to determine the victim’s peritraumatic reaction; but this is debatable. Although this point is counterintuitive, just remember that most people have no experience in motor vehicle accidents and that serious long-term effects of a motor vehicle accident cannot be perceived or forecasted at the peritraumatic phase.

Dr. Giorgio Ilacqua